Eaman and I knew we wanted to WWOOF at least once during this trip, and we thought that Patagonian Argentina or Chile would be ideal because the landscape is beautiful and working for accommodation and food would be smart considering the high-priced region. We were accepted to only one farm — some farms were full, others didn’t respond — so the choice was made for us. We’d be working for two weeks at a farm in Trevelin, Argentina, helping with a potato patch, picking fruit and assisting with jam production.
Looking back at these last two weeks, it wasn’t all fun and games. In fact, there were days when I wanted out…badly. But in the beginning, it was so fresh and exciting.
I mean, look at the farm?
Tons of fragrant lavender:
The kitchen with a wood-burning stove:
Mate dispenser in the kitchen:
Our bedroom, probably the most luxurious, spacious accommodation we’ve had since our New York City apartment:
Our first day couldn’t have been more idyllic. Our host Michael, a British widower who has lived in Argentina for the last 30-some years, scooped us up from the bus stop and cooked us lunch with the sugar snap peas we had just picked from his garden before telling us that there had been a change of plans. He wanted us to come to his daughter’s home 20 km away for his grandson’s 4th birthday party, where we could have some cake and pick some fruit there.
In addition to his Trevelin farm — called a “chacra” based on its size — Michael also owns a home in Esquel, an apartment in Buenos Aires and a gorgeous fly fishing lodge by a river. Two of his five children live full-time at the lodge, and that’s where we headed for the party. But I think “gorgeous” is putting it lightly. Their sprawling property — filled with cherry trees, rose bushes and rows upon rows of lavendar bushes — is like a dream. I would’ve taken pictures, but I didn’t want to be that WWOOFer busting out her camera on day one.
In between politely gorging our faces with trays of desserts, we met Michael’s family and friends. They were all friendly enough, but we didn’t want to intrude. This was a family function after all. But when we did have some opportunity to chat with various people, there was a common thread to the conversations: Michael apparently wouldn’t be an easy person to work for. It came in different forms, such as, “So is Michael working you hard yet?”, “Is Michael being very [imitates cracking a whip]?” and, my favorite, spoken by a British guy about our age, who works at the lodge, “Yeah, if you were sick, Michael would put you on the next bus out of there because you’d be of no use to him.”
Interesting. But Eaman and I brushed it off. The next day while picking berries on Michael’s chacra, Eaman said that he admired someone who works that hard for something he’s passionate about. I thought so, too.
Our duties included picking fruit, erecting an electric fence, chopping and collecting wood for the stove, helping with meal prep, ridging soil and killing detrimental beetles on the potato patch. We killed the critters by picking them up with our fingers, placing them on a leaf and squishing the leaf — with the beetle inside. (It’s an organic farm, so no pesticides allowed.) We’d have bug guts all over our fingers, but believe it or not, I didn’t hate it. In fact, we both got a lot of satisfaction out of murdering more and more each day. We often turned it into a competition… as Eaman is often prone to do.
The kitchen garden, where we picked fruits and veggies nearly every day:
But pretty soon, we understood exactly what everyone was talking about re:Michael. Every task we did around the farm was followed by a negative comment about what we had done wrong. The sprinkler was supposed to move back instead of forward after an hour, even though he never told us that. The meat should’ve been cooked without oil. The potatoes should’ve been ridged with soil from further away. The wood Eaman picked for chopping wasn’t good, even though we told Michael which wood we were getting beforehand.
(Let me just put it out there that a lot of what bothered me to a great extent on the farm didn’t bother Eaman as much. This recount is of how I felt.)
All this cristicism could’ve been constructive had Michael properly given us directions. But he never did. He never showed us around the kitchen garden, so no wonder I picked brussel sprout leaves for a salad instead of Swiss chard. I had no idea! But he sure made me feel dumb for it. We were usually guessing through our work, hoping that we’d be right. But he’s the kind of guy that even if you do something right, he’ll find something wrong with it. Don’t get me wrong, he did thank us from time to time on certain jobs well done (i.e. the electric fence, one of the projects we were particularly proud of).
Chopping wood. The wrong kind apparently:
I often wore long-sleeves to protect my skin from the sun and fend off allergies. Of course I broke out into a rash on my hands, arms and legs anyway. But note to self: Get long sleevs that are NOT black unless I want to overheat:
Why didn’t we ask questions, you say? Well, Michael had a way of making us feel stupid for questions that may have been simple for him but weren’t so obvious to us. There were more than a few times that I wanted to mouth-off and tell him he had 30 years of experience on us, so chill the eff out. We never claimed to be farming experts and made that very clear in our initial email. If he wanted experienced WWOOFers, he shouldn’t have taken us.
To make matters worse, he had a knack for serving up smart-ass comments to most any of our innocent questions. We were driving by a small shack of a house and Eaman asked if it was abandoned. Michael said, “No, of course not. Don’t you see the woman out there hanging clothes?” Then, a few minutes later, upon seeing a flying helicopter, he said to Eaman, “Look. There’s an abandoned helicopter.”
On someone else, the language could’ve been construed as sarcastic but ultimately good-natured. Michael, however — in all his unsmiling, terse, perpetually frowning glory — was just plain mean. Nothing ever seemed good enough.
And it sucks to say, but it broke my spirit. I came into this experience wanting to learn a lot and make the most of it. I wanted to understand the process of jam-making, soak up whatever I could about gardening for my own future mini garden and bake breads in my off-time. But in that negative place, all I ever wanted to do was finish my tasks and read in our room. What a horrible feeling it is to do everything with such hestitation and fear, constantly rehearsing the lines of rationale in your head about why you did something so as to hopefully be less culpable. (Not to mention the fact that Michael is very possessive and militant about his jam-making, so apprenticing was completely out of the question.) Some days, I was physically and mentally exhausted and wanted so badly for the days to pass sooner.
But it’s unfair to say it was all bad. First of all, Michael was gone most nights and some days, as well. (We’re 99% sure he has a girlfriend in town.) But beyond that, the setting was unbeatable and the fruits and vegetables we ate straight from the garden were the best we had ever tasted.
Eggs from his chickens with the most yellow yolks I’ve ever seen:
We also enjoyed and thoroughly made use of siesta time. From around 2 to 5 p.m. every day, Eaman and I would take nice long naps and get immersed in our books. (I’m currently reading and loving Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram.) I’m already having trouble getting through the days without my three-hour wind-down.
Plus Michael’s dog, Milonga, really took to us. If you know me, then you know dogs are my obsession verging on mild hysteria. Milonga liked adventure and always followed us outside as we worked. As corny as it sounds, she was like a little bright light that kept me going when Michael deflated me.
And it was a real mood-booster to have Eaman there. I don’t even know how crappy I would’ve felt had I been alone. But even if work got us down, we created all sorts of inside jokes, enjoyed the outdoors and even found this jungle gym-esque piece to play with:
We also treated ourselves to a nice dinner and tea time. (Trevelin was once a Welsh colony, so tea houses are a huge part of the teeny tiny town):
We also went to check out the grave of the famous horse, Malarca, who risked his life to save his owner’s during battle. (Let me clarify that Eaman was the one who was dying to see this, Trevelin’s claim to minor fame.) But it was a 20 peso (about $5) entrance fee — not a lot, but a lot to see some horse’s grave — so we decided to stay outside the perimeters and just look at the picture of the grave.
Eaman got pretty choked up about it:
At one point, we even spent the night at the family fishing lodge, where we got the chance to kayak on the beautiful river, and Eaman had a chance to dabble in fly fishing. (It’s necessary to have a license to fish in Argentina and since Eaman didn’t have one, we went out there at our own risk. It hadn’t even been five minues before a patrol boat came around the bend for a routine check. We quickly hid the pole and pretended to skip rocks. They didn’t notice, but that’s when we called it quits.)
The lodge also gave us the chance to partake in a South American tradition — well, one that’s recommended in the safer countries: hitchhiking. Since Michael didn’t stay at the lodge, his daughters said they could either drop us off or we could hitchhike. But she had two sick kids on her hands, and to be honest, they didn’t do a great job of making us feel welcome. We felt intrusive, though still apprecative that she had let us stay, so we hitchhiked.
In the heat we walked for maybe 40 minutes in the dry, blazing desert-y heat with, maybe, 10 cars driving right past us. Then we saw a little red car — near the end of its life — slowing down. Of course the car about to die with the chain-smoking, beret-wearing greasy man agreed to take us back to downtown Trevelin. True, the car was about the sputter its last breaths of diesel-fueled life and the doors didn’t have handles on the inside to leave and I could feel the rocks from the road dent the bottom of the car, but he was nice enough, and we made it back to the chacra one piece.
But I digress. Back to the farm…
So did Michael’s mood change for the better at all? I’m so glad you asked.
Last Tuesday, after more than a week of Michael’s criticisms and complaints, Eaman had had enough. Now, I’m scared of confrontation, sometimes to my detriment, but when Eaman has been wronged, he isn’t afraid to stand up for himself. It’s one of the things I admire most about him.
I was in the kitchen with the two new WWOOFers — an Argentinian girl and her French boyfriend — who had arrived the day before while Eaman was outside with Michael. Michael had just scolded us for not cleaning the bathroom and had moved on to scolding Eaman for not figuring out how to work a sprinkler. The two of them went outside to figure it out. When Eaman reappeared, without Michael, he said to me under his breath, “I just went off on him.”
“About what?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said.
But when Michael came in, he didn’t seem ruffled by the apparent smackdown. In fact, he asked us if we had been getting enough food. I figured Eaman’s talk had had some effect on Michael, and I was dying to know the details.
I had to wait until our post-lunch siesta for Eaman to spill the details. I made him repeat everything just so I could relish in the vengeance all over again. He had told Michael that never, even during six years in finance, had he ever dealt with such a negative, complaining person. How he only criticizes instead of appreciates how hard we’re working. How people — even his own family members — had warned us about how tough and unwavering he’d be as a boss.
Michael listened to all of it and apologized, explaining that no one had ever told him those things. Eaman told him that most people aren’t as outspoken as he is.
Later that day, Michael wanted to correct us on yet another task we had been doing wrong. It had to do with the potato patch, and we figured it was best to wait for the other two WWOOFers so they could learn from Michael. (With a language barrier, if we taught the newbies, it’d probably be wrong and we’d get in touble for it.) But Eaman was still frustrated from earlier in the day.
He asked: “Shouldn’t we wait for the other two? I don’t want to have to teach them! When are you going to teach them?”
“It’s none of your business! Do you have to argue everything?” Michael was now the mad one. Eaman and him went back and forth like that — Michael telling Eaman he was acting like a child, Eaman saying the same to
Michael — yet somehow the fight just fizzled at one point, and Michael showed us how to properly ridge the potatoes as if no outburst had ever come up.
I guess that’s one thing I give Michael. He doesn’t hold grudges. And after that double-header Tuesday, things changed quite a bit.
Michael lightened up. He made better conversation. He even showed us how to do a folklore dance, a craft he’s practiced for years. It wasn’t a complete 180 — at one point we were scolded for overstuffing the laundry machine — but it was a vast improvement.
Michael even took us to an agricultural expo in Trevelin. We worked on the chacra in the morning and headed off in the afternoon for the showgrounds, where merino sheeps and rams worth $30,000 (!) were being judged as if it were Best in Show. It was weird and wacky, and I kind of loved it.
Oklahoma-bred Eaman, right at home on some haystacks:
And Michael even drove us to a further-away bus station the morning we left, which avoided us having to catch a way early bus from Trevelin itself. So like I said, he wasn’t made of stone per se.
But will I WWOOF again? The short answer is probably not. The longer answer is that unless I knew 110% that the host was nice, helpful and willing to teach us, I don’t think I’d voluntarily go through it again. Don’t get me wrong; this experience will remain one of the highlights of this trip. I learned so much about farming, I have a newfound appreciation for where my food comes from, Eaman and I bonded even more as we went through an intense experience, and, um hi, we saved about $500 in food and accommodation. But the experience also confirmed that my skin isn’t that thick. Like I said here, we’re not all built for everything. Eaman withstood everything with a lot more calm and unflinching focus than I did. But for me, going through days and only wanting them to end asap was exactly the opposite spirit of this trip.
So we’ve decided against WWOOFing in Hawaii, as originally planned. For me, it’s a mix of this sour experience, the fact that we’d have to sleep in a tent for a month and the fact that the host farm we’ve been in touch with has stopped responding to our emails. (With an understanding of just how strenuous farm work is, sleeping in a tent sounds miserable.) For Eaman, it’s really just a matter of the latter two. Either way, we’re excited to go Hawaii and be thrust into the adventure of having to find a job (at cafes, restaurants, stores, etc.) so we can try to live there for a few months.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from WWOOFing. Just know that how your host functions can really affect your experience. But whether it’s a good experience or bad, I guarantee you the experience will be worthwhile.